Mrs. Johnson–or how I learned to write a story


Ethel Kauble Johnson (1897-2009)

Yesterday was International Women’s Day, and in the evening I attended “Women’s Words,” two hours of women sharing their stories through the written word. Some stories filled the room with laughter while others made us nod in agreement as we recognized the universality of our experiences. I love a good story, and I admire writers who are bold enough to share themselves with others.

I think I’ve wanted to be a writer since first grade at Wharton Elementary. I cherish the memory of the day my teacher, Mrs. Johnson, asked us to write a story. My grade didn’t have the benefit of kindergarten, but by this time in the school year we had learned to print and spell. Some of the children groaned, but I loved stories and couldn’t wait to create one. Reaching inside my wood school desk with its cast-iron legs bolted to the floor, I pulled out my Big Chief Tablet. What should I write?

Mrs. Johnson read us lots of stories to us, so I knew how a story sounded. I thought a little harder. My Grandpa P. visited us every Sunday evening, regaling me with stories about his youth in the 1890s and early 1900s.Maybe I could write up one of Grandpa’s stories?

Picking up my thick first-grade pencil, I started writing. The details are blurry today, more than fifty years later, but I think I wrote about an itinerant fiddler named Elmer who survived the tornado of 1887 by rolling himself in a mattress. Or at least I wrote a first-grade version of it. Clutching my pencil, I filled the page with words, confident I was writing the greatest story ever told.

Everyone else finished, and I sensed Mrs. Johnson standing by my desk, waiting. But when I looked up she smiled. “Go ahead and finish your story.” Maybe she told the others to draw a picture or look at a book.

I wish I still had my first story, which Mrs. Johnson returned with an “excellent” stamp featuring a stick man standing tall, his stick arms stretched wide and a smile on his face. Every writer should have a Mrs. Johnson sitting on her shoulder, smiling and saying “You can do it, and it will be good.”

Thank you, Mrs. Johnson!


About JP in B-town

JP grew up on a sheep farm in northwest Ohio. She learned to knit by the age of ten, and loves the smell of wool. She fell in love with reading, a habit she fed with weekly visits to a nearby Carnegie Public Library. Reading fed her desire to become a writer, and her dream of traveling the world. She resides in Bloomington, Indiana, where she continues to knit and write.
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